Frank van Eekeren appointed as professor in Sport & Society

Frank van Eekeren

Frank van Eekeren has been appointed as professor of Sport & Society at the Utrecht University School of Governance as of 1 September 2022. He will focus on public value creation by sport organisations, such as contributing to social cohesion in neighbourhoods and promoting participation of hard-to-reach target groups. He is also interested in issues of integrity, good governance and corporate social responsibility in sport. ‘Sport is a mirror of society, and that is what makes it so fascinating. That is why my research is not so much sports research but research in sports', says Van Eekeren.

For more than twenty years, the Utrecht University School of Governance (USG) has a tradition in education, research, consultancy and impact regarding governance and organisation issues with sport as the research context, says professor and fellow researcher in sport, Maarten van Bottenburg. Since the beginning, Frank van Eekeren has contributed to this by linking education, research and consultancy, and by entering into partnerships with involved citizens, professionals and organisations in society Moreover, he is known to make nuances and he considers offering alternative perspectives as essential and meaningful as the scientific analysis on which they are based.

Actually, everything revolves around 'insight with impact'

I really see my appointment as an expression of the new Recognition and Rewards within the university: the School of Governance is putting its money where its mouth is,' Van Eekeren adds.  Of course, everything starts with scientific research and analysis, but for me the impact - doing research into socially relevant themes and ensuring that the knowledge and insights can be applied in practice and policy - is at least as important. I try to get people to think, perhaps to offer something that makes them look at things differently. I consider this as the core of my work.

Actually, everything revolves around 'insight with impact'. First you have to gain insight: how do things work? Then you can think of solutions. But it is only interesting if it also has impact. It may well confirm existing ideas and opinions, but it may also be that your insight is slightly different from mainstream thinking.


Frank van Eekeren

Van Eekeren has been the driving force behind the establishment of the research focus area Sport & Society of Utrecht University and the Vitality Academy, a partnership between Utrecht University, UMC Utrecht, Wageningen University and Eindhoven University of Technology. He holds several social positions, including that of board member of the PSV Foundation and member of the Social Advisory Board of FC Utrecht. He was a member of the advisory council Good Governance  of NOC*NSF and is a  columnist in the professional journal Sport & Strategie.

Van Eekeren is an entrepreneurial and connecting scholar with an extensive national and international network. He is a research associate at the University of Johannesburg (South Africa), a member of the scientific committee of the World Congress on Science and Football and a valued, returning guest lecturer at universities abroad, including Cologne, Johannesburg and Tsukuba (Japan). For the past three years, he has also been Professor of Applied Sciences  at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. Recently, the book Good Governance in Sport. Critical Reflections, which he edited with Arnout Geeraert was published (Routledge, 2022).

Sport and society closely intertwined

Sport is an important social phenomenon and therefore has an impact on society. The question is: how do you organise sport in such a way that it has as much positive impact as possible on the one hand and, on the other hand, how do you prevent all kinds of abuses. That both has to do with how you govern, manage and organise it, says Frank van Eekeren.

In sport, criminal undermining or match-fixing can take place, but great things also happen. Groups of people who would never meet anywhere else meet there. Sport is a healthy activity. Large sporting events can be enormously enjoyable and can strengthen the identity of a country or a city. At the same time, the bidding process to host these events can lead to  fraud and corruption. How do you keep all that in balance?

And then there are the larger social issues around health, sustainability, inclusion: is sport responsible for solving these issues; if not, who makes sure these issues are addressed properly within sport?

In sport, we see social issues reflected and sometimes magnified

Frank van Eekeren
Frank van Eekeren presenteert onderzoeksrapport Impact van Sport

In sport, we see social issues reflected and sometimes magnified. Sometimes sports clubs think that politics, the police or someone else should solve them. As in the case of riots by so-called football supporters. They are sometimes somewhat opportunistic in this, but what plays a role is that sport has traditionally been organised autonomously and privately, independently. But that has shifted in the last 30 to 40 years, due to the popularisation, commercialisation and even instrumentalisation of sport, in which sport is seen as means to solve social issues. Developments of this kind have ensured that the intertwining of sport and society has become closer.

In my view, sports organisations have become more and more hybrid organisations: often privately organised, but with many public features. Sport and society are closely intertwined. This requires a whole new way of managing, taking responsibility and executing.

You talked about opportunism in some sports clubs; you could also say that this is inherent of sport. Competition, a struggle between 'us' and 'them', between winners and losers – at the same time sport is also always saying that it should 'unite'. That sounds rather ambivalent.

There are many paradoxes in sport, explains Van Eekeren. You want to beat the other, but then you might think that it is difficult for sports organisations to unite, but they do that very well. You have NOC*NSF and all kinds of sports associations that unite because they know they need each other, even the sector as a whole. A new sector consultation has recently been set up, including municipalities, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, NOC*NSF and the  sport entrepeneurs . The cultural sector sometimes comes to me, asking: how can sport always be on the agenda? While volleyball curling and chess may be just as different from each other as a pop music venue, a museum and a choir - but getting them together as a cultural sector is impossible. This has also to do with the institutional embedding of sport.

Are you also available as a researcher for issues in these other sectors?

Definitely. I also think it is very important to state that I do not see myself as a sports researcher. I am a Public Administration and Organisation Science researcher who is very fascinated by the specific context of sport. You see things happening there that you don't see anywhere else, that you can study in that specific context and make specific recommendations on that. But at the same time, you see more general developments in sport. A library, for example, is traditionally a public organisation that has to work increasingly privately - that too is becoming hybrid. The National Railways is also a hybrid organisation. The lessons we learn in sports can also be translated to other sectors - always taking that other context into account.

Concrete projects Frank van Eekeren and the other researchers and advisors within the Chair of Sport & Society are working on, concern integrity and good (sports) governance and public value(s) creation. For example, they are investigating match-fixing, criminal infiltration and undermining of sports associations, and how this can be combated. In addition, researchers evaluate the social legacy of major sport events, such as the departure of the cycling event Vuelta d’Espagne in the Netherlands (August 2022). Recently, they started a three-year cooperation with the Eredivisie CV, the Dutch premier football league, in the field of corporate social responsibility. And soon a contract will be signed for a multi-year cooperation between Utrecht University and professional football club FC Utrecht, aimed at both community building (how can a professional football organisation contribute to the development of vulnerable neighbourhoods) and team performance (how can team performance on the field be enhanced by a more value-driven organisation).

Sports news is often good news, but you also have an eye for the dark side of sports?

I like  sport so much  that I want us to look at it critically. What is happening now in gymnastics, with the cases of inappropriate behaviour... that is insane. Hooliganism, criminal infiltration in sport, doping, match fixing - these are very different threats to the prestige and integrity of sport, says Van Eekeren.

I like sport so much that I want us to look at it critically

Frank van Eekeren

These abuses have no simple solutions. Daily practice is incredibly complex and full of dilemmas. It is about power relations, formal and informal spheres, culture, structure - everything is mixed up - as is the case in every organisation, by the way.

Dilemma training is probably much more effective than sanctions

It sounds very tough when you say you have zero tolerance for criminal undermining of a club. But if your club is in trouble and someone comes along who is well-known in your neighbourhood, and says: 'I have some money, I'll fix up that canteen for you,' what do you do ? And what if that person then says: shall I join the board? After which he wants to rent out the canteen on Friday evening, because nothing happens there anyway, and then it turns out that a drugs syndicate is having a meeting in your club on that evening? That is how it goes sometimes. It starts very small and innocent. That is why dilemma training is probably much more effective than sanctions.

It is not rocket science, but you need good research to substantiate how this works. Then you understand that  it has to do with the structure of the club and the formation of boards. That money flows in clubs are often not transparent. It is also about the culture within a club, neighbourhood or village and the culture within sport itself.

Football is still a man's world, for example. Fortunately, that is about to change. So, I also have to be aware that I am now that white 'old' man sitting on boards, so I am also responsible for ensuring that women, young people, fysically challenged people or people with an migrant background all get their place in the sport. I have been active in the sport from a young age and have lived through it - that is an advantage but can also be a weakness. So, I must also keep my distance from the object of my research, be aware of any blind spots. Because it is precisely those blind spots that can cause undesired effects.

Taking responsibility is therefore also important, in sport as much as in society.

Sport is a great mirror of society, that's what makes it so fascinating. If we have politicians who don't take the lead, or pass things on to each other, or get the wrong people to step forward - you see that in sport as well. When things go wrong in sport, nobody is in charge or feels responsible. Government says for example: hooligans, they are your supporters. But they're just troublemakers who put on a club shirt to riot.

The 'Who's the boss' question is in fact present at all levels

Frank van Eekeren

The question 'Who's the boss' is in fact present at all levels. If, for example, we want to tackle physical inactivity and obesity: is sport responsible for that? Or is it the government, or both? Who takes the lead? This question also arises in professional football clubs: is the technical manager the boss, the trainer, the star player, the sponsor, or perhaps the hooligans who threaten to step into your garden?

Who and what determines whether a club is viable? What must a sporting event achieve socially, and who is responsible for that? Who is actually in charge of the social deployment of sport in the neighbourhood? And who takes the lead in issues around sport and health, inclusion, sustainability in vulnerable neighbourhoods? And on a macro level: who is actually accountable if there are abuses in sport?

Those are a lot of questions. We can talk about that for a long time...

I will be happy to do so in the years to come.

More information

If you would like to know more about Frank van Eekeren, please visit his personal page.